Wednesday, 18 November 2009

The wondrous world of bleeding icons

(picture: The weeping icon of Holland)

“Good afternoon. I have a strange story. Came home last month from a holiday on Rhodes. Bought an icon. I had already seen it, last May, but didn’t buy it then because it was too expensive. This time I did. I have no interest in religion, I just fancied it. The day after coming home I put it on a spike already sticking out of the wall. I then saw something on the wall and tried to clean it off. I got a fright because about 10 –15 cm from the icon a red fluid seeped out of the wall. The building surveyor came, but he could not explain what it was. The paint shop could not explain it either. A laboratory at the hospital tested it: it was not blood and difficult to dissolve in water. What is it? Friends on Rhodes say it is a miracle. An Orthodox priest says the same. He has blessed it. It does not mean anything to me. Have you ever heard of this kind of phenomenon? I hear it has to do with positivism.” An email from Holland.

Imagine it happened to you! You buy a nice icon just because you like the image and then this image turns out to be not only a work of beauty but a miracle! You often read in the papers about these kind of odd events that attract hundreds of believers. The lady who sent me the email prefers to stay anonymous: “I do not want my living room turned into a place of pilgrimage” she says.

And she is right. Especially in America, plenty of weeping and bleeding icons regularly get discovered, filling their churches immediately with faithful believers, news hunters and sensation seekers.

In the Catholic Church most miracles seem to be connected to a vision of the Virgin Mary. In the Orthodox Church they have icons of the weeping Mary but also saints who bleed. This is not a modern phenomenon because in Byzantine time weeping and bleeding icons were already recorded.

Around the year 861 three Patriarchs wrote a letter to the emperor Theophilos about three bleeding icons. There was an icon of Mary on Cyprus that was pierced by an arrow shot by an Arab; an icon of Christ in Beirut that was struck by a lance wielded by a Jew; and another icon of Christ from the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (now Istanbul) was damaged by a Jew using a knife. This last one became known down the centuries (although some writers says it was a Mary icon). It seems from these legends that for an icon to bleed it had to be damaged, by an infidel.

Many icons that shed tears have been written about in old books and papers, but few of the stories are seriously researched. That might be difficult because in early days icons traveled a lot. After the Turks conquered Constantinople and turned its biggest cathedral into a mosque, the bleeding Christ of the Hagia Sophia was believed to have been moved to Peribleptos Church in the town of Mystras, in the Peloponnese. At the beginning of the ninth century the famous icon of Mary with the Holy Child (Panayia I Vrefokratousa) now at the Panagia Church in Agiasos was supposedly taken there from Jerusalem to Lesvos, by a monk who was evicted from Constantinople. He wanted to give the icon to the empress Irene who had been banished to Lesvos, but when he arrived on the island, he found she had already died. So he fled to the mountains, and as soon as he could trust the people there, he revealed his treasure: an icon painted by the evangelist Lucas. Then a monastery was established by monks to safeguard this holy icon. In 1170 they got permission to build a church dedicated to Mary and then there grew the little mountain town of Agiasos.

I am not sure what kind of miracles this Maria Vrefokratousa performed. She does not weep, but she attracts thousands of pilgrims every year, as does her biggest competitor on the island, the icon (made of clay and blood) of the archangel Michael in the Taxiarchis monastery in Mandamados. This other famous Lesvorian icon not only cries from time to time but is also said to have the power to move other images. When in 1974 the Turks invaded Cyprus a huge wall painting of the archangel Michael disappeared for a week from the Taxiarchis church. Greek soldiers battling with the Turks on Cyprus are sure they saw Michael fighting with them against the enemy on Cyprus!

Non-believers will immediately try to explain the teary eyes of miraculous icons because the painted wood can ooze resin, and when the glue that is used to make the panel gets hot, it melts. There are many ways to use these natural phenomena to cheat true believers.

In North America they even have a specialist whose job it is to debunk the iconic “miracles”. Years ago he was called to look into a weeping icon in Toronto, Canada. When he arrived with his weeping-icon-detection-kit at the church overrun by believers, he immediately saw that there were no tears flowing from the eyes of Mary but oil. When it became known that the priest of this church had another weeping icon in another church in New York and that he also ran a brothel in Athens there was no more talk of miracles! What priests will do to enlarge their flock…

Here on Lesvos we have many churches and small ones especially seem to be everywhere. Because many of them are falling into ruin (and with them many a cultural treasure disappears) they could do with a miraculous weeping or bleeding icon to cure pilgrims of their afflictions. There are plenty of icons hanging on their damp walls, some very old and precious, some just reproductions in fancy frames, or fading pictures from a magazine. Some churches even have murals, but even though they are in need of attention, none of their saints weep or bleed.

The icon in Holland does not bleed any more either. It was moved to another place in the house, next to a cross, and the fluid that came out of the wall dried up. How this icon made Mary shed her tears just some centimeters below the icon is still a wonder. There was no priest in desperate need of followers involved, nor a lunatic that cried for attention. I think you just have to accept some of the miracles just like life…

For the people still wanting to perform miracles, here is a website that can help: weeping icons for the whole family.

(Thanks to: Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2009

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